signsofnebulas asked: Any tips on writing a good film paper? Any help is much appreciated. I am an Intro to Film student, and I did poorly on my last essay. I find writing about films harder then almost anything else.. btw nice blog, I enjoy every second of it!
I have a lot of ~feelings on the subject of film school, so buckle up. This is gonna get pedantic.
The first major mistake that people make (not you, specifically) is that they don’t take film studies seriously as an academic pursuit. A lot of students assume that since everyone watches movies, a film class will be an easy A. This is a fatal mistake for anyone in a serious, well-organized film program. Taught properly, film studies is as rigorous as any other liberal arts field, if not more so because it demands that you re-organize your way of seeing media and deconstruct the images and meanings you had previously taken for granted. From elementary school on, we are all taught to read a book critically and themes, symbols and character traits are drilled into us, so that by the time we get to college, we basically know how to write a paper on David Copperfield.
Film studies is not analogous to literary studies—and if your school teaches a Film as Literature class, run away as fast as you can (they’re vastly different mediums and one is not beholden to another)—but it can be useful to use a familiar deconstructive process (literary) to get you started on a visual/filmic analysis. First off, do not write a film paper like an essay on a novel. If your professor teaches film in the same way he would a book, you’re in trouble. Challenge this paradigm as much as you can. The most useful way to approach an essay on film is to focus on visual analysis. Your professor or program should be teaching you the visual language of film as much as possible. This includes the elements of the mise-en-scene, camera moves, how the picture is framed, and the film is cut together. If you are not getting these basic elements, either consult your professor or take it to the streets (aka internet). David Bordwell, who co-wrote the film textbook that I used as a first year film student, Film Art, has a website where he blogs on lots of cinema issues. He also has a ton of essays available to download for free. In addition, there is a wonderful site called Film Studies For Free which links to many, many, MANY peer-reviewed papers and is an invaluable resource for research. Of course, you can always go to scholar.google, which is an easy way to search for academic papers. Most universities have access to online journals like JSTOR and the like, and that is a critical resource in learning all you can about what you need to know (especially if your faculty or fellow students are being unhelpful). Basically, the internet is your friend and there are TONS of bright, eloquent people blogging about film all the time. Which brings me to point #2.
- READ. Read all the damn time. Read until it feels like your brains will fall out. Remember when you’re reading PDFs to take notes, either on the reading itself or on your own paper. But read actively. Write down any words you don’t know (extra helpful when you’re reading something heady like the Frankfurt School). Write down any questions you have. Make a note when you disagree with the author. Make a note when you read something that reminds you of something else. You should be trying to make connections all the time between the texts you read. It’s amazing how often, when you’re taking multiple film classes, your disciplines will overlap and connect to each other. This is the rather lovely, thrilling aspect of academia, when everything seems connected. Making connections between texts also makes you look really smart, which is a plus.
- WATCH. Watch movies all the damn time. My favorite professor at film school, whom I hold in very high regard, said that film students should be watching 10 movies a week, MINIMUM. This is relatively easy if you’re taking classes where you watch movies in class. Watch at least one film on your own time per day. Ideally, though, this is more like two or three. Watch actively. Do not watch a movie while Tumbling, while texting, while being distracted in any way. If you learn better this way, take notes while watching a film. I do this all the time because I have a very poor memory and movies I see tend to blend together. Also, keep track of the movies you’ve seen in a list or a blog. If you have DVDs with special features on them, watch them. If you’re particularly interested in directing or writing or editing, etc., watch the special featured geared towards those fields. I would also encourage all film students to vary their viewing as much as possible. Take classes about topics you know nothing about. Take classes about foreign cinemas. Take a class about martial arts movies. Take a class about things you think you’ll hate, or might have prejudices against. If there’s a movie in particular you fall in love with, ask your professor or TA to recommend similar films. If you can tell your professor is particularly knowledgeable about an era or topic in film history, question them about it. Professors love to know their students are actually engaged in what they’re studying and having casual conversations about the movie you just watched is a lot more natural way of getting into their good graces than awkwardly asking for a letter of recommendation the week before you graduate.
- LISTEN. There are a lot of incredible film podcasts available, a lot of them for free. These are great to listen to in those gaps when you’re not 1) watching a film, 2) reading about a film, 3) writing about a film. Good during workout time and walking to and from class.
- WRITE. This is a bit of a no-brainer since you have a Tumblr. Not everything you write has to be a fully-formed critical analysis, but the more you jot down your thoughts on the films you’ve seen, on the things you’ve read, on media and life and history and, well, everything—the easier it will be for you to conjure up those opinions when it comes to put them in concrete, serious, “this shit is gonna get graded” terms. Also, take notes in class. This is a no-brainer, as well. And, actually, pay attention in class. Even if it’s a film you’ve seen before, or a film you don’t think you’ll like, or you hate your professor or think he’s stupid.
If I can digress for a second—GO TO CLASS, EVERYONE. DON’T SLEEP IN CLASS. DON’T TEXT IN CLASS. PAY ATTENTION, FOR GOD’S SAKE, THAT’S WHAT YOU’RE PAYING FOR. Ahem, sorry. But, honestly, if you don’t have enough passion and respect for film to attend class and take your education seriously, what the fuck are you even doing there. (Again, not you specifically). If you’re studying film, you should only do it if you are IN LOVE with it and physically, mentally, emotionally CANNOT do anything else. You must be prepared to be poor forever, to be undervalued, misunderstood, underestimated, discarded by friends, family, and random people on the street who hear you’re studying/have studied film and give you a sad, quizzical look that’s a mixture of “Why would you ever…?” and “Oh, he/she must be stupid/lazy/crazy.”
- Back to writing…Keeping a small blog or journal where you write your thoughts about films (even if it’s a bullet point deal) can be useful if you have trouble organizing your thoughts in an essay. Also, keep a “to do” list of films you have read/heard about that you want to see. I have several of these, and I’ll never, ever get to the bottom because I’m always adding new films to the pile.
Which brings me to another digression: If you haven’t seen a film, it isn’t the end of the world. You’re a student: LEARN. If you haven’t seen The Godfather or Citizen Kane or Pulp Fiction, don’t be ashamed of it (or lie about it, which is something EVERY cinema studies student has done at some point), just take the 2-3 hours and sit down and watch it. Everyone has a different preference of what they like to watch and how they’ve come to see the films they’ve seen, and as long as you are as objective as possible in critically analyzing why you like the things you like, you’re fine. Not everyone has to like everything, so don’t feel bad or “wrong” if you don’t care for a film when it seems everyone else does. Just have faith in your own analytical skills and be able to defend your position, even if you’re position is “I know this film’s no good, but I love it because…”
- ON ESSAYS, SPECIFICALLY. FINALLY. Back to visual analysis. Here’s an exercise that I found helpful more than once in writing a paper. Pick a movie you’ve seen many times and are very familiar with. Pick a 2-4 minute sequence in that movie, re-watch it many times and document the elements of the mise-en-scene. Count the shots. Count the cuts. Document when the camera moves, or doesn’t. How are the figures moving in the frame? What’s the color palette? Etc. Next: what is the meaning being conveyed by these technical elements? Try to separate this scene from the movie as a whole. Try not to reference events that will occur later in the movie or have occurred before. Focus on this one scene specifically. By doing this, you train your visual analysis muscles (much as an athlete would) by repetition. This approach is not necessary for every movie you watch or for every paper you write, but the more you forcibly make yourself aware of the craft behind a movie, the better your essay skills will get. Remember that the purpose of a narrative film is to render the visible invisible, and your job as a film student is to unpack and deconstruct that invisibility.
- Remember that you are not writing about a book, so try not to focus on “themes,” unless those themes are conveyed visually. When you ground your analysis in the visual, your argument gets stronger and you’ll be able to tease out more interesting elements.
- For the love of God, start small. The biggest mistake people make when writing essays of any kind (and professors make in devising essay prompts), is to focus too broadly on a topic. The narrower your thesis, the better. Some of my most satisfying essays have focused on a single repeated word, phrase, or visual image. You should be able to get at least five to seven pages on a simple analysis of a single film. Anything else and you’ll need to either censor yourself, simplify your argument, or provide a cursory summary. If your professor or TA consistently gives your prompts that require you to analyze more than one film on multiple topics, either try to reason with them or choose a common element in that film that is as small as possible. A successful essay takes something seemingly inoccuous and perhaps even underappreciated and expands on it in many ways that may not have been considered before.
- Don’t be afraid to take risks in your theses. Don’t be afraid to disagree with the author you’ve read, or what your professor has said. Remember that if you’re going to be contrary, you need to have a strong argument and remember to concede that your own analysis brings up its own objections. A strong essay makes it point with at least three pieces of supporting evidence, but also acknowledges other readings.
- Don’t plagiarize. This is obvious, but for God’s sake, don’t do it. Cite your sources, even when you think the information is obvious. The degree to which you cite (and in what form) obviously depends on your school, your program, and your professor, so make sure you’re doing it right. Remember there are more sources than just books and articles. Audio commentaries and interviews with the filmmakers are also helpful sources for certain kinds of essays. You can find out how to cite these by Googling the information. Remember if you are having trouble with something specific, ask your professor or TA. Not only do they appreciate you’re talking to them, it lets them know you’re serious about the class and lets them know you’re less likely to cheat. This is a good impression. It may be hard to ask for help, but most teachers are there to help and in my experience, they rarely ever get visitors at their office hours and it makes them sad.
I don’t really know what else to say without getting into specifics about individual papers. Not to be too condescending, but a basic outline for a paper should look something like this:
- Title (try to be imaginative and don’t be afraid to get witty, cheeky, or goofier; college is all about the most ridiculous titles you can imagine—have fun with it; if your grader hates it, believe me, they’ll let you know)
- Topic sentence that gets to the point; don’t get too lofty (“Since the beginning of time, men have dreamed in pictures…”); avoid hyperbole
- If required, background information on your film/paper/whatever you’re writing about
- Condensed versions of your evidence points
- Thesis; thesis should be easy to identify and clearly stated; if you’re having trouble crafting a thesis statement, your university probably has writing workshops, you can consult your professors and there are always internet resources; your thesis should be concise, arguable, and original; even if your thesis incorporates other people’s ideas, make sure you cite them, but have your own unique spin on something; for example: “Adorno argues that blah blah blah, but as [insert evidence] will show, blah blah blah [your own thesis.”
- Depends on the length of that paper, but in my experience, most medium length papers (5-7 pgs.) require at least 5 body paragraphs
- If your paragraphs are getting too long (like, a whole page), revise and look for repeated information you can delete, or places where you diverge from your main argument—here is where you can go to a new paragraph
- Each paragraph should open with a topic sentence that relates to the thesis and that functions as the thesis statement of that paragraph. For example: “Adorno’s involvement in the Frankfurt School evolved from a post-war blah blah blah” and then your supporting evidence should have more or less to do with that topic sentence, which in turn should relate to your overall thesis argument
- Don’t forget to cite your sources; use quotes conservatively—only use them when they support your point—they should never be the point in and of themselves; in other words, don’t let other people speak for you
- Each paragraph should end with a transition into the next bit of evidence
- Restate your thesis, and each of your supporting points
- If desired, bring up counterpoints to your argument and why your argument is stronger than those arguments
- Perhaps bring in an observation that has a bit of finality to the proceedings
- Wrap things up the best you can without sounding pat or bringing in cliches
- Remember that your paper isn’t the final word on the topic—just try to argue a small point as thoroughly as you can
I know this is very long and I’m sorry if I’m restating a lot of things you already know. Remember that the easiest way to be a good film student is to just be a good student generally. Familiarize yourself with visual signifiers and film language as much as possible and immerse yourself in media. I hope this can help in any small way. I really do wish you good luck on your upcoming essays and as a film student.
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